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Sons of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg Ask Obama to Exonerate Their Mother in Nuclear Spy Case

StoryDecember 29, 2016
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Two brothers are making a last-ditch appeal to President Obama to clear their mother’s name. Michael and Robert Meeropol are calling on Obama to posthumously exonerate their mother, Ethel Rosenberg. She, along with their father, Julius Rosenberg, was charged with conspiring to share nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union and executed on June 19, 1953. At the time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accused the couple of committing “the crime of the century.” The government alleged the Rosenbergs, along with Morton Sobell, helped the Soviet Union acquire the secret of the atomic bomb. But supporters say there’s no evidence that Ethel Rosenberg took part in espionage. A new report by the Seton Hall School of Law suggests Ethel was used by the government as a pawn for leverage in its attempt to build a case against her husband. We speak to Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He was six years old at the time of their execution.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Billie Holiday singing Lewis Allan’s song “Strange Fruit.” Lewis Allan was the name—the actual name of Abel Meeropol, who’s the adopted father of our next guest, Michael [sic] Meeropol. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Two brothers are making a last-ditch appeal to President Obama to clear their mother’s name. Michael and Robert Meeropol are calling on Obama to posthumously exonerate their mother, Ethel Rosenberg. She, along with their father, Julius Rosenberg, was charged with sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union and executed on June 19th, 1953. At the time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accused the couple of committing “the crime of the century.” This is a clip of a newscast after the Rosenbergs’ execution.

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Someone had passed America’s atomic bomb secrets to Russia. This was an undisputed fact that the whole world knew. The federal government had laid the crime at the doorstep of two native New Yorkers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. But to the end, they both protested their innocence of the theft. In April of 1951, the federal court of Judge Irving R. Kaufman found the pair guilty as charged and sentenced them to death in the electric chair to pay for their crime of treason.

AMY GOODMAN: The government alleged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, along with Morton Sobell, helped the Soviet Union acquire the secret of the atomic bomb. But supporters say there’s no evidence that Ethel Rosenberg took part in espionage. A new report by the Seton Hall School of Law suggests Ethel was used by the government as a pawn for leverage in its attempt to build a case against her husband, Julius.

Joining us now, Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, six years old at the time of their execution, author of the autobiography An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. He’s also the founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Robert Meeropol, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now!

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m sorry I said that Michael was coming in, but I’m glad that you both get along.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Your older brother. What exactly are you asking for?

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, we’re asking for an exoneration, as opposed to a pardon. First of all, a pardon implies that somebody is guilty. It’s a forgiveness for something they did. We know, from KGB files and other places, that Ethel Rosenberg was never given a code name, so we know that the KGB did not consider her a spy. And she wasn’t a spy. So, we’re not asking for a pardon.

Instead, what we’re saying is that the trial, the entire trial, was a perversion of justice. The judge and the prosecutor secretly communicated. The prosecution developed this plan to use my mother as a hostage, basically, to use her as a lever to coerce my father into saying what the government wanted him to say. And then the prosecution encouraged the chief prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass, the only people who gave information against my mother at the trial, all oral, to invent a story of my mother typing up certain notes from David Greenglass, which never happened.

So, when Seton Hall took a look and sort of deconstructed this trial in a 26-page, very painstaking report—that we did not commission, this was independent—what they basically said was she was used as an afterthought. She was there to coerce cooperation from my father. And that’s the only reason they did it.

And what’s particularly dangerous about this—it’s not just about my personal desire to exonerate my mother, to have President Obama, before he leaves office, essentially nullify the verdict in that case against my mother, but instead to demonstrate that if the government is going to create evidence and facilitate the conviction of someone in a capital case for political purposes, this is a threat to civil society. This is the way the judiciary is used in authoritarian societies. It is incompatible with a free and open society. So we’re not just doing this for ourselves. We’re doing it to preserve, I would say, freedom in this country, in general, and the right to dissent, because the courts can be used as devastating instruments of repression, as they were during the McCarthy period. And we can fear in the coming years that this may happen again.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, there’s a direct link between Ethel Rosenberg’s fate and incoming President Donald Trump: Trump’s longtime lawyer and mentor, Roy Cohn, who was a member of the prosecution team in Ethel’s case, who pressured Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, to make up false testimony about his own sister. There was reportedly no other evidence to convict her. He also apparently colluded with the trial judge to predetermine the outcome for both Julius and Ethel: the death penalty. In 1951, Roy Cohn was interviewed aboard the SS Nieuw Amsterdam.

ROY COHN: The one thing we have to understand at the outset is that the Communist Party is not a political party. It’s a criminal conspiracy. Its object is, as has been established by the verdict of a jury, the overthrow of the government of the United States by force and violence, as soon as the right time arrives. In the meantime, plans are being made so that day comes. And the Communist Party’s most important work is that of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, which means that it infiltrates our government, defense plans, every important place possible, in order to steal information from us and give it to the Soviet Union.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Roy Cohn speaking in 1951. So, Robert Meeropol, could you talk about the role that Roy Cohn played during your mother’s trial and what his role has been in Trump’s administration or incoming administration?

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, I’m really glad you asked that. I mean, there’s actual television footage. I mean, one of the things about our campaign is that it’s not just our claims. We use all the government’s material in order to destroy the government’s case. And in the Roy Cohn case, there’s actually a television interview in which he talks about how he coerced David Greenglass into making up this testimony about my mother’s typing. So, that’s—he is—Roy Cohn can be said to be one of the principal architects of my mother’s execution.

And he did represent both Donald Trump’s father and Donald Trump, and Donald Trump has said, “This is my mentor. He taught me how to respond to attacks.” So, it’s one of the reasons that we’re pushing Obama in the last days of his administration, because we know, once his administration is over, that President Trump is not going to admit that his mentor executed someone who was not a spy for spying. So that’s—that’s the connection. And it’s—we don’t think that this is—this is our last chance, at least for the next four or eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Meeropol, you’re not asking for your father to be exonerated. So, talk about this.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, once Morton Sobell, my parents’ co-defendant, in 2008 essentially said, “Hey, Julius and I did it. We were engaged—it wasn’t the secret of the atomic bomb, but we were engaged in trying to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis during World War II. It was electronics. It was other military information.” But at the trial, Julius was accused, essentially, of conspiring to spy, and we now know that he did spy. Now, it’s true the trial was just as unfair in his case. He was executed for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb, something he didn’t do. But it’s a much more subtle claim. It’s a much more difficult situation than with my mother, who, again, perhaps the most powerful and simple evidence is the fact that she wasn’t given a code name. Well, David Greenglass had a code name.

AMY GOODMAN: Her brother.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Ruth Greenglass had a code name.

AMY GOODMAN: His wife.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Right. Julius Rosenberg had a code name. Ethel Rosenberg had no code name. So we know she wasn’t a spy. We know the KGB did not consider her a spy. And anybody who claims that she was a spy is essentially saying, “We know better than the KGB who was a KGB spy,” which is a laughable claim, if it weren’t so tragic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, your brother actually said that your mother, in a—speaking in an interview with 60 Minutes, that your mother, Ethel, was “collateral damage” of McCarthyism.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: And that’s right. To use family members to hold them hostage, it’s actually what terrorists do. And then, as one of—a former secretary state, Secretary of State Rogers, was quoted as ultimately saying, “Ethel Rosenberg called our bluff.” In other words, the whole thing was a bluff. Well, that’s outrageous. And we can’t allow the judicial system to be used in this manner.

And I do want to urge—one thing I want to emphasize, we have—we’re somewhere between 45,000 and 46,000 people on our online petition urging President Obama to do this. I’d love to get to the 50,000 mark. You know, every signature counts. But big numbers are symbolically important.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky signed, Michael Moore, Eve Ensler, Kathleen Chalfant, Gina Belafonte, Michael Dukakis, the former governor and presidential candidate.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: In some ways, the inspiration for this campaign, because it was his proclamation about Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists who were executed in the 1920s by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that could be a model for this presidential proclamation. And it’s at the Rosenberg Fund for Children. That’s—if you go to their website, really easy website, RFC.org, you’re going to go right to the petition.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have to leave it there now, but you’ve raised too much in history, so we have to do a Part 2 to really go through it and what it meant for you to grow up, you and your brother Michael, with your parents executed, and your fund for helping children of imprisoned people. Thanks so much, Robert Meeropol. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. This is Democracy Now!

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